There are more than 34 million people in the U.S. who have diabetes—that’s 10 percent of the population. So if you don’t have the disease, you certainly know someone who does.
Managing diabetes can be difficult, but there are ways you can help or offer support to someone who needs it.
UNC Health endocrinologist M. Sue Kirkman, MD, offers a few tips.
1. Know what diabetes is and how it’s treated.
Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by excess sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream. The hormone insulin, made by the pancreas, helps convert the sugar from food into energy for the body’s cells. However, with diabetes, the body doesn’t make insulin or enough of it, and the body may be resistant to insulin. This leaves too much sugar in the blood and causes health problems.
There are three main types of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes, which affects pregnant women. If you have a loved one with diabetes, Dr. Kirkman suggests learning about that type and what it means for a person’s daily life.
“Find out what that person may need to do day to day. They may need to use a meter to check their blood sugar before they eat. They may have to administer an insulin shot, or they may have to program insulin into their insulin pump to keep blood sugar levels in a safe range,” Dr. Kirkman says.
Once you have the knowledge, you can be prepared to help if needed, and you’ll also have empathy for the person’s experience.
2. Be open to the kind of help they want and don’t judge.
Each person with diabetes has his or her own way to manage the condition. It’s best to offer support to that person in a way they choose. It’s also OK if that person doesn’t want your help. Ask how you can be there for him or her.
Above all, don’t be critical. People with diabetes have good and bad days just like everyone else, and they don’t have to be perfect.
“Maybe they do want someone to help them be accountable, or maybe they just want you to be their friend and not their coach or their nag. I would take the clues from them,” Dr. Kirkman says.
3. Look out for the symptoms of low blood sugar.
If a person with diabetes experiences a major drop in his or her blood sugar (called hypoglycemia) from their insulin or diabetes medications, this can be dangerous and lead to life-threatening problems such as seizure or becoming unconscious (especially problematic when driving). So it’s important for people around them to be aware of the signs of low blood sugar.
Watch out for fatigue, weakness, shakiness, pale skin, sweating, hunger, irritability, dizziness, and nervousness or anxiety.
“They can get confused or seem to have brain fog,” Dr. Kirkman says.
If you see this happening, try to encourage the person to test his or her blood sugar if they can. If needed, offer something to help boost blood sugar, like orange juice, bread or fruit (anything with carbohydrates in it). Make sure to stick around to see if the person is starting to feel better once blood sugar levels are back within normal range. If symptoms persist, especially if they become worse, seek immediate medical attention.
“If you offer the person a snack or drink and they do not respond to your encouragement to eat or drink it, that’s a sign that it’s probably beyond your ability to help them. If they look like they are going to pass out or have a seizure, it’s best to call 911,” Dr. Kirkman says.
“There is also an emergency injection or nasal spray called glucagon, which raises low blood sugar. Family members or roommates can be trained to use glucagon, but typically casual friends wouldn’t know how to do this. When in doubt, call for help.”
4. Serve a variety of foods.
A healthy diet is key to having normal blood sugar levels. If you’re having an event or party, try to be mindful of offering balanced options for food. Start with vegetables, fruit and protein, but don’t hesitate to serve carbohydrate-containing foods or to add a few sweets as well.
“Don’t assume that people with diabetes can’t have treats sometimes. Don’t be judgmental about that,” Dr. Kirkman says. “It’s great to have a variety of things to eat, but people with diabetes are allowed to have sweets. The main thing to remember is that healthy diet recommendations for people with diabetes are the same as for all of us.”
5. Be a workout buddy.
Being active plays an important role in managing diabetes. It helps control blood sugar levels and lowers the risk of heart disease and nerve damage. If the person is interested in pursuing exercise and asks you to join him or her, go for it. You can also gauge whether the person is interested in activities you like, such as going for walks, swimming, dancing, bicycling or playing a team sport. Exercise is good for people with and without diabetes, so this will help you, too.
“I think for a lot of us, exercising alone is a lot harder than exercising with someone else. So sometimes it’s really helpful to have a walking buddy or a gym buddy,” Dr. Kirkman says.
6. Offer mental and emotional support.
For a person with diabetes, the burden of having to constantly monitor his or her health and the discomfort of physical symptoms can be very stressful and contribute to anxiety and depression. In fact, people with diabetes are two to three times more likely to have depression than people without diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If you think your loved one is struggling with depression or other mental health problems, you can be a source of support. Be willing to listen if a friend, relative or co-worker wants to open up and talk about their disease, Dr. Kirkman says, and ask them regularly how they’re doing.
You can also ask the person if they want help finding a therapist to talk to, or if they want to hear about any relaxation or stress-reduction techniques that have helped you.
Have questions about diabetes? Find a doctor who can help.